The Benefits of Sexual Education in Schools

Sexual education in public schools aims to provide accessible, accurate, inclusive, and positive information to children and adolescents. The goal is to teach young people how to have healthy sexual relationships and avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancies. 

Research has shown that abstinence-only education does not work. Pregnancy prevention and safe sex education must start young but should be lifelong.

This article will cover 10 reasons why comprehensive sexual education should be part of a young person’s education. 


Abstinence-Only Sexual Education Doesn’t Work

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Research has consistently shown that abstinence-only sex education does not affect the rates at which teenagers decide to have sex.

Since the primary purpose of abstinence-only education is to prevent sexual activity among teenagers, it is clear that the teaching does not work.

Comprehensive sex education does not discourage kids from having sex. It does, however, teach them how to have safer sex.


Teens Need to Know About Safe Options

One problem with abstinence-only education is that it denies teenagers the chance to learn about acceptable options other than abstinence. 

No form of sex education has been shown to convince teenagers not to have sex effectively.

Caregivers, educators, and other influential adults in a young person’s life must support them and promote their health and well-being. This should happen even when a young person doesn’t conform to certain standards of behavior, be it around sexuality or something else.


Sex Ed Doesn’t Make Youth Have More Sex

Over the past 20 years, numerous studies have consistently shown that teaching comprehensive sex education in schools doesn't encourage kids to start having sex sooner or have it more often.

Other studies have shown that providing condoms in schools doesn't make kids more promiscuous.

Having external condoms available does seem to encourage teens to use them, but only if they would be having sex anyway.


Many Teens Have Had Sex Already

According to the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance Survey (YRBSS) in 2019, about 38% of high school students have had sex at least once. About 27% said they were currently sexually active.

The report also found that:

  • About 57% of 12th graders had had intercourse, compared to about 20% of 9th graders 
  • Only 3% said they started having intercourse before the age of 13

The report also showed that the trends in sexual activity in high school-aged students have been decreasing.

In fact, in 2017, the number of students who had ever had sexual intercourse was the lowest it had ever been since 1991, when researchers first started collecting data.


Youth Need to Start Safe and Stay Safe

Any person who has sex is at risk for STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea. Young people just beginning to have sex are at even higher risk—especially if they don’t know about safe sex practices.

The YRBSS report from 2019 also found that:

  • About 54% of sexually active teens said they used a condom the last time they had intercourse.
  • About 35% of sexually active female students reported using prescription birth control (such as "the pill" or an IUD) the last time they had intercourse.
  • About 13% said they had not used pregnancy prevention the last time they had intercourse. 
  • About 9% had ever been tested for HIV.
  • About 8.6% said they had had sexual intercourse with four or more partners.

Teens Need to Take Responsibility for Their Health

Part of staying healthy is understanding the importance of seeking appropriate health care.

When kids are young, parents often set the example and make the decisions about healthcare visits, whether making appointments or shuttling them to the provider’s office. 

As young people age, they may not feel prepared to take on the responsibility. As such, their opportunities to be screened for STIs and other sexually-related health topics decrease.

A study in Pediatrics found that parents who talk to their male children about sex are likelier to have children who go to a healthcare provider.

One of the biggest risk factors for not seeking care is holding traditional views about masculinity.

Young people must learn early that caring for their health is a priority regardless of sex and gender.


Sexual Education Provides Accurate Info on Risks

Comprehensive sex education doesn't encourage kids to have sex. Just like abstinence-only programs, comprehensive sex ed programs teach youth that abstinence is the only surefire way to prevent pregnancy and STIs.

The difference is that the programs also give students realistic and factual information about the safety of various sexual practices.

They’re also given accurate information about the odds of pregnancy when using various birth control methods. In addition, they get the chance to understand their feelings about the risks.

Teens must also learn how other behaviors can put them at risk if sexually active. For example, about 21% said they had used alcohol or drugs before the last time they had intercourse. These behaviors can increase the risk of STIs, unplanned pregnancies, or sexual violence.

About one in 10 high school students reported experiencing sexual violence last year. LQBTQ+ students were at the highest risk.


Caregivers Can Still Share Their Views

If caregivers don’t feel comfortable or confident about discussing sex with their children, knowing this information will be provided in a safe space at school can be a relief. 

If caregivers haven’t felt like it’s been “the right time” to have these talks with their kids, the start of sex ed at school can be a springboard. 

Comprehensive sex education at school doesn’t prevent parents from sharing their personal beliefs, moral views, and values with their kids.

If kids are getting the facts about sex at school, caregivers can explain and explore their beliefs and expectations with their children when they feel it’s appropriate. 

While it can be hard to have these conversations if beliefs, values, and expectations don’t line up, it’s crucial that kids feel they can trust and have the support of the important people in their lives.


Teens Who “Know” Often “Say No”

The more kids know, the more likely they are to say “no.” Today, young people get information from peers online and off. They may go into sex education with many ideas and misunderstandings and rely on adults to provide clarity and facts.

That said, when a teacher tells students that only abstinence can protect them from STIs and pregnancy, young people know they're being lied to—or at the very least, misled.

Giving adolescents an accurate picture of the risks of different types of sexual behavior can help them make informed decisions about sex.

The most effective sex education programs tend to be the ones that try to steer teens away from specific activities that are particularly high risk.


Youth Need to Know the Risks of All Kinds of Sex

What do teenagers do when they haven't been given accurate information about sexual risks?

They often have other kinds of sex. For example, youth may have oral sex or anal sex instead of vaginal intercourse because they think it's less risky.

In particular, many teenagers don't see oral sex as incompatible with abstinence, even though oral sex can transmit STIs.

Abstinence-only education sometimes encourages students to abstain from sex without telling them what sex is. 

In contrast, when comprehensive sex education is taught in schools, it helps teens make informed decisions about sexual behaviors they might want to partake in.

Sex ed class is also a place where young people can learn about what a healthy sex life can look like.

Topics like sexual health check-ups, having open communication with partners, masturbation, and sexual and gender identity are key topics for teens to learn about.

Teens also need to be taught what to do if they have a sexual experience that is harmful, negative, or unintended. For example, sexually active teens must know the following:

  • When—and where—to get tested and treated for STIs
  • What are their options for an unplanned pregnancy, including the use of Plan B One-Step, how to access safe abortion providers, and who to talk to about prenatal care, adoption, childbirth, and parenting
  • What to do if they are sexually assaulted or raped, including the medical and legal actions they need to take for their safety


Research has consistently shown that young people benefit from comprehensive, inclusive sexual education in school. Sex ed doesn’t make kids more likely to have sex, but it increases the odds of having safer sex.

Caregivers have an important role to play in promoting healthy sexual attitudes and behaviors in young people, both at home and at school.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.